This is the second part of a two-part article on the way in which Russia’s new presence in Syria has forced Israel to reassess its own regional role. In the first part I wrote on the new Israeli-Russian relations as manifest during Netanyahu’s mostly fruitless trip to Moscow. In this part I will look more closely at an Israeli assessment of the strategic shift now afoot. Here is the first part.
In the 21st century, American foreign policy seems to employ two sticks, the military stick and the financial/corporate/petrodollar stick (TPP is its latest WMD). Russia has a military stick, not so big as the Big Stick of the US perhaps, but also wields a wicked range of carrots. These are often turned down, but Putin has kept offering. Turkey could not bring itself to embrace the Turkstream, knowing perhaps, how its jilted lover, America, would react. After he ill-advisedly dismissed Putin’s offer to both protect and invest in the large Israeli Leviathan gas fields, Netanyahu offered up the same excuse in the end. Damn! for a bigamist, how does the US get off being so jealous?
This at least is the reasoning of the Israeli Debka report I began discussing yesterday. It begins, “Putin’s offer to shield & develop Israel’s gas fields predated Russia’s military buildup in Syria.” It came, reportedly, at the end of August. Debka clarifies: “At the time, Putin did not share with Netanyahu his plans for an imminent buildup of marines, air force units, warships and missiles in Syria, although the plan had been worked out in detail with Tehran in late July.”
Presumably, the Israelis were caught off-guard, just as the US seems to have been. Presumably, it is less a blunder if Netanyahu did not know of Russia’s intents to build up its military presence in Syria. But was that so difficult to foresee? If this is genuine, then it can only be because they were hypnotized by their own propaganda. The ground has long been in evident preparation.
Let us look more closely at the document, its dubious analysis of Netanyahu’s decision-making, as well as its more convincing conclusions about a new geo-political ballgame underway in the eastern Mediterranean. The Middle East remains the pivot of East and West; a tiny movement around that fulcrum has large consequences further out.
To the Debka report: First off, we cannot tell what Russia required of Israel: to relax its grip on its Syrian proxies? to lay off Hezbollah (officially and legally allied with Syria to throw out foreign terrorists)? According to the Debka dating, Putin could not have let on that he was about to ramp up Russia’s military presence (but how could he protect Leviathan otherwise?) So he would not have asked for the kind of “military-to-military” arrangements that were the sole, tiny bureaucratic fruit of Netanyahu’s Moscow trip with high ranking army and intelligence officers on each arm. We do not know what Putin required, but no doubt he demanded protection for Hezbollah and Iranian forces battling ISIS and other extremists in Syria, just as he offered concurrent protection to Israel from them with the Leviathan project. But Netanyahu refused the offer and lost the hand with unnecessarily greater, though yet to be determined, geo-political costs.
Why did he refuse this mutually advantageous peace deal with Russia and his neighbors, especially when Putin had such a strong hand and judicious proposal? The strongest among official stories is that he did not suspect Russia would move into Syria. Why not, considering their long alliance and Putin’s consistent message in support of Syria’s sovereignty? Did Netanyahu believe Russia would not want another front, dealing with a build-up of Kiev forces for what seems an intended autumn invasion of Donbass? Did he surmise that post-Soviet Russia had effectively abandoned its old ally Syria? Or did he believe, as Erdogan tried to make us believe at the end of August, that Putin was ready to abandon Assad? One source says he did not trust Putin to make good on his deal, but this can only be fodder for those who know little of either Putin or Netanyahu’s past.
Debka says that Netanyahu’s reluctance to take up Putin’s offer was for several reasons –all, incidentally, pointing to the faults of others. He “sensed” that contracting with Russia would be “unacceptable to Washington and Noble Energy of Texas, which holds a 39.66 percent share in the consortium controlling Leviathan”, the recently discovered off-shore Israeli oil fields, that Russia had committed to protection and billions of dollars in investment — effectively competing with its own commercial energy interests, as Jim Dean points out. The report also pointed to differences within the Likud-led governing coalition, arguing that the finance and economy ministers obstructed the government go-ahead for gas production, pre-empting an agreement.
If Netanyahu was upset then, it did not compare to when he woke up to Russian troops next door. Or their ghostly footprints echoing through the night, since there still has been precious little verifiable evidence made available that Russia has done much more than improve and enlarge their “capabilities” (State Department) at Lattakia. Likely, new jets and artillery too have arrived.
Something seems left out of the picture, perhaps something is added, and much is being obscured. We must assume Debka, like the the selective info dissemination centers of other military and intel websites, know more than we do. Or maybe they know less, if their politicians are any indication. Debka describes the wake-up call as follows:
“… when the fresh influx of Russian troops and hardware to Syria became known … Netanyahu began to appreciate that, not only had Israel’s military and strategic situation with regard to Syria and the eastern Mediterranean been stood on its head, so too had foreign investment prospects for development projects in Israeli gas.”
The conclusions of the Israeli release, analyzed and usefully circulated by William Engdahl, point to the central fact around which an enormous shift is now taking place. This entails tangible negatives for Israeli geo-political positioning and its energy industry to boot. The main slap in the face, the main brace of cold water, the main reality that Israel and all coalition partners now have to wake up to: Russia’s presence has granted Assad “a substantial lease of life.” The grim document goes on:
“The Israel Defense Forces must therefore revamp its posture on the Syrian front, and reassess its sponsorship of the select rebel groups which are holding the line in southern Syria against hostile Iranian or Hizballah cross-border attacks on northern Israel. The changing attitude was suggested in views heard in the last couple of days from top Israeli security officials, who now say that leaving Assad in office might be the better option, after all.”
(Notice that phrase, “select rebel groups”? Those are what we in America call “moderates”.)
The second sobering conclusion: ” The new Russian ground, air and sea buildup taking shape in Syria provides a shield not just for the Assad regime but also Hizballah. This too calls for changes in Israel’s military posture.” At the time of the offer, two weeks earlier, this was not known or anticipated, at least by Netanyahu. When Netanyahu brushed off the carrot, he neglected to fully contemplate the stick.
Debka, a military source, ideologically narrow, is deceptive and partial with the facts, but realistic. Military analysts are not divorced from reality like politicians and academics can be. They fully admit, as do disgruntled right-wing journalists at US State Department press briefings, that official policy now bespeaks a definite, if deceptively small, step backwards. A clear retreat if not defeat.
I don’t want to speak too soon either; this is retreat, and I suspect a turning point, especially if we consider the economic side. Here too war is being waged, and a similar story may be told: the Chinese-Russian alliance seems to have weathered the West’s worst punches, while the US hasn’t begun to feel the full effects of its own gutting of the economy in the interests of war, fiscal profligacy, and monetary voodoo.
We must see how Putin’s patient game plays out, and how these Western actors react. The West’s always-expanding military and economic establishments are used to having their way in the 21st century. Hopefully cooler minds will prevail in each coalition nation. I sense a tidal shift, but the tide may turn back. God only knows what Lindsay Graham or John McCain have got up their sleeve. They are so clever. We also should not count out Big Bibi’s capacity for hysterics.
Our Israeli military and intelligence source is neither hopeful nor hysterical. As with US neo-cons, Debkafiles assessment of Israel’s effectively reduced range of influence is sober and for Israeli expansionists, sobering, — even though only half the account is told at best. Nor does the story about the Putin proposal of late August, not confirmed in any official quarters, seem to be rank dissimulation, nor simply a psy-op.
The report ends with the following paragraph in that spare, high-realist style that sends a chill up the spine of professors of freshman English at West Point. Still, we feel behind it a sigh of resignation that probably summarizes General Allen‘s professional resignation as US anti-ISIS “czar”:
“Three (sic) aspects of the new situation stand out prominently:
a) The Russian air force and navy are the strongest foreign military force in the eastern Mediterranean. The US deploys nothing comparable.
b) …. no one is looking for a military clash with the Russians….
c) In view of … the Russian military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, it is hard to see any foreign investor coming forward to sink billions of dollars in Israeli gas.
d) Although Russia called Saturday, Sept. 12, for “military-to-military cooperation with the United States” to avert “unintended incidents” amid its naval “exercises” off the coast of Syria, the tone of the call was cynical. It is more than likely that Moscow may revert to the original Putin offer of a Russian defense shield for Israeli gas fields. But with such strong Russian cards in place in Syria, he may well stiffen his terms for this deal.”
This hardly needs further interpretation. Once in a while, government media organs are constrained into corners of truth. I only want to emphasize that Putin has now effectively redoubled his threat, and wielded his stick. He had offered to keep Hezbollah and Iran in line, once Syria was stabilized and they could offer an honest-to-god threat to Israel. Netanyahu turned that down. “Suit yourself”, Lavrov might have said. Thank god Putin does not seem the kind to wield the stick, as long as there remains a carrot to offer. Now he may do so from a more advantageous standpoint, Israel must concede, as Debka does.